A Waldoboro woman is suing the federal government over the death of her 90-year-old father less than two weeks after a VA doctor took him off Vicodin, a prescription opioid painkiller he had taken in small doses for 40 years to deal with chronic knee pain.
The man suffered from gastrointestinal bleeding and died due to hemorrhagic shock and ulcers, the lawsuit alleges – side effects of the new painkiller he was prescribed by a doctor at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Togus. The suit contends the ulcers and bleeding started only after Douglas C. Wallace’s painkillers were changed.
According to the suit, the change in medication was made in September 2014 when Wallace, a decorated World War II veteran, first saw his new primary care physician, Dr. Joseph J. Lienart, at the Togus VA medical center.
Wallace was in good health, according to his daughter, Donna Wallace, who said she accompanied her father to the appointment with Lienart. Wallace had been taking a small 5 mg dose of Vicodin and acetaminophen daily for four decades to manage pain in his knee, the lawsuit said. But Lienert, the suit contends, told the Wallaces there were risks in the use of opioids by the elderly and the VA had adopted a new policy of taking all patients off opioids.
A VA spokesman in Maine, Jim Doherty, did not respond to a Press Herald email Monday afternoon seeking information on that policy. He also declined to comment on the suit.
Two weeks after he saw Lienert, Wallace got a prescription in the mail for Diclofenac, his new painkiller, the suit said. Within 10 days, the suit alleges, he developed bleeding ulcers. Two weeks after he started taking the new drug, he was dead.
The suit alleges that when Lienert switched Wallace’s drugs, he never told Wallace or his daughter what drug he planned to prescribe to Wallace or the possible side effects.
Maine now has a strict law designed to limit the dosage of opioids doctors can prescribe to patients and the duration of the prescription. But VA doctors aren’t required to follow the state laws in all cases, and the measure was never intended to apply to the elderly, said Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association. Smith is a lawyer, not a doctor, but he worked with lawmakers in drafting the law, which went into effect in 2016, two years after Wallace’s death.
Smith said the 5 mg dose that Wallace was taking falls well below the dosage limit in the law, and he said the law is not intended to apply to the elderly. He said the medical association would be more concerned with a caretaker stealing opioid medications from an elderly person than someone in their 80s or 90s developing a dependence on the drug and taking higher dosages.
“That has not been our focus,” he said. “Elderly patients on very low doses have generally been allowed to continue.”
The suit doesn’t specify how much Donna Wallace is seeking in damages.
Her attorney, Taylor Asen, said he was unable to contact Donna Wallace on Monday to determine if she wanted to speak publicly about the suit.
According to his obituary, Douglas Wallace was a World War II Army veteran, serving in the Philippines and outer islands of Japan. His convoy was attacked by Kamikaze planes and Wallace was awarded a Purple Heart, the Philippine Liberation Medal with Bronze Star, the Victory Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Theater War Medal and a Good Conduct Medal. After the war he built wooden boats at a yard in Friendship and later became a lobsterman and an avid hunter.
© 2018 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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